Healthy Mind

Unraveling the Tangled Web of QAnon Conspiracies and Wellness Devotees: An Interview With ‘Conspirituality’ Podcast Host Matthew Remski

Erin Bunch

Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Remski; Graphic: W+G Creative
When reporting for an article earlier this year about how fringe segments of the wellness world became a hotbed for COVID-19 denial and contrarianism, I had the pleasure of speaking with (the very smart) Matthew Remski, co-host of the Conspirituality podcast and a cult dynamics researcher. In our conversation, we danced around an often interrelated phenomenon: the wellness world's infiltration by QAnon.

For the uninitiated, QAnon is a collection of conspiracy theories based on the overarching belief that an underground cabal of pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring, which former President Trump is working to defeat. An anonymous poster to the anonymous message board 4chan, and then later 8chan and now 8kun, who goes by the pseudonym "Q" is responsible for seeding much of the QAnon belief system.

Its central theories have been disproven, but that hasn't stopped QAnon from growing in popularity, even as its myriad predictions fail to come true. When this happens, the conspiracies simply evolve—QAnon's most recent shifts have been toward increasingly overt anti-Asian and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

According to a December 2020 poll by NPR and Ipsos, 17 percent Americans believe the conspiracy theory's central premise: that "a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media." There are now QAnon believers in the United States government, and the storming of the capital on January 6, 2021, was powered in part by QAnon conspiracists.

Notably, fringe wellness figureheads like women's holistic health expert Christiane Northrup, MD, have also adopted the QAnon belief system. And some in the wellness space have contributed to its mainstreaming by making QAnon theories appear more palatable for their audiences: The #SaveTheChildren hashtag, for example, is often used to quietly signify a belief in the QAnon theories—and sneak through the restrictions Twitter and Facebook began placing on QAnon content in the summer of 2020. And some lifestyle influencers have adopted typical Instagram aesthetics (read: pleasant fonts and colors) to make alarming QAnon theories blend in with the rest of your feeds so as to more easily convert followers to the belief system; this phenomenon is known by some as "Pastel QAnon.

That QAnon would appeal to those in the far right of American politics makes sense, as positioning President Trump as a savior serves their political goals. It's less obvious at first glance, however, why many in the wellness world have fallen for Q's dark beliefs. To better understand this phenomenon, I engaged Remski in the QAnon-specific dialogue we'd avoided having in our initial conversation.

Grab your oxygen tank, friends, we're diving deep.

Well+Good: What do you see as being the overlap between wellness and QAnon?

Matthew Remski: There's a spectrum of connections and overlaps. For those devoted to a wellness paradigm that is proudly allergic to conventional medicine and big tech, QAnon provides a mythological framework for understanding what they're up against, how they feel their bodies are controlled by nefarious forces, and how crucial it is for them to regain autonomy.

For those who feel spiritually attracted to QAnon, the appeal might be related to the intersection between spiritual beliefs and the three rules of conspiracism. Researchers generally agree that the first rule is to believe that the world is like a dream or a mirage, and that nothing is as it seems. According to this rule, Bill Gates only appears to be a philanthropist, just as Jeffery Epstein only appeared to be a hedge-fund manager. The second rule is that nothing happens by accident. Typos in Donald Trump’s tweets are a sign that he’s battling the Deep State; and COVID only breaks out in countries with 5G technology. (Both are false of course.) Thirdly: Everything is connected. In the QAnon world, this is best exemplified by the psychedelic QMaps, which attempt to capture all of the most complicated stories in American history on a single mesmerizing page.

The strange thing is that students [of yoga] might recognize the parallels between these rules and the sacred principles of maya, karma, and interdependence. In spiritual life, these axioms can provide solace, equanimity, and resilience. But if they cross a certain line of paranoia, they can also form the backbone of conspiratorial thinking. [Editor's Note: You can read more about this connection between yoga philosophy and conspiracy ideology in Remski's Medium post, here.]

For those devoted to a wellness paradigm that is proudly allergic to conventional medicine and big tech, QAnon provides a mythological framework for understanding what they're up against, how they feel their bodies are controlled by nefarious forces, and how crucial it is for them to regain autonomy.

The more general attraction to QAnon, as to any conspiracism, would be its promise—a false promise—to fulfill several types of needs: the need to feel one knows the secret truth that others don't; the need to survive an impending disaster; and the need to bond with those who share the same passions and anxieties. QAnons share a powerful set of bonds. They have absolute certainty about what is happening at the most consequential levels of government. Their secret knowledge will keep them safe from harm as it distinguishes them from evil cabalists. This draws them close to each other in sentiment and through the relentless rhythm of posting.

But the bonds are ultimately fragile, being based on lies. When QAnons fragment—we saw this happen in real time as they gathered in Telegram channels to watch the Inauguration on January 20—their isolation can be profound, especially if they have alienated family and friends on their spiral down the rabbit hole.

Is there a certain type of wellness devotee who might be more susceptible to adopting QAnon beliefs than others?

I'd say three main conditions increase the vulnerability of the wellness devotee. If they are a gig-working yoga, fitness, or bodywork professional dependent on the online influence economy, they will be exposed to QAnon propaganda through the networks they depend on to survive [namely, social media]. Further, they may feel compelled to engage with that content in order to maintain the appearance of cultural wokeness.

Secondly: If they belonged to high demand or cultic groups—or if they used to and haven't fully recovered—they will already be acclimatized to the chaotic attachment patterning that QAnon instills, through which terror and love are confused. For instance, I’ve reported on heavy doses of conspiracism in a Venice Beach sect of Kundalini Yoga. And the Love Has Won cult has become internet famous for combining their belief that their leader is a God with their belief that QAnon describes a divine plan. Folks in these groups will be used to charismatic leaders who simultaneously scare the shit out of them and promise them heaven. (This is the conspirituality sleight-of-hand.) If people are currently in a cult, they will also be vulnerable to their leaders adopting QAnon as a new source of inflammatory and authoritarian content.

Finally, if the wellness devotee is in the trauma-healing sphere, they may be vulnerable to Q-adjacent recruitment gateways, like #SaveTheChildren—the fake online movement that rallied around the Wayfair conspiracy theory last summer, and actually led to real-world protests in Los Angeles, London, and Berlin.

More broadly, the traditionally-understood factors of vulnerability to cultic control include: poverty in social ties, financial stress, and isolation from family. The online world adds another general vulnerability: the intersection of infinite possibility with grinding alienation and boredom.

It's seemingly strange that people considered to be socially liberal (for instance, who are vegan, or protest environmental harm) and those on the far right politically now share beliefs. Can you explain this alliance?

The connection goes way back, which makes the present-day horseshoeing of these unlikely groups predictable. The roots of modern yoga, alt health, and New Age spirituality are tangled with fascist movements of the early 20th century. It's no secret that Nazis were enthralled by yoga and its esoteric promise of a super human, super-purified body. They turned to India—or rather, their own orientalist dreams of India—for inspiration as they imagined purifying the homeland of Jews, homosexuals, and every modern cultural influence they considered to be degenerate. They created physical culture—the roots of the group exercise we know now—out of the belief that their racial and reproductive supremacy must be maintained through bodily discipline. Many of the "natural" medicine and dietary themes they developed carried the same message: for bodies to be pure, the land must be pure. This leads to very thin lines between organic gardening and eco-fascism, between sun salutes and military calisthenics. [Editor's Note: Remski unpacks this in greater detail on Medium, here.]

Today, the horseshoe isn't as sensational as the merger of Nazis and yoga. QAnon has benefited from and strengthened alliances between right-leaning and left-leaning folks who are living in neoliberal economies that focus on consumerism and hyper-individualism.

When the political economy has rendered people apathetic, an apocalyptic fantasy can feel like a last gasp at meaning.

Whether they see themselves as progressive or conservative, people in liberal democracies the world over are now acclimatized to endless messaging that citizenship means shopping, and the state exists to facilitate shopping. So both progressives and conservatives can feel utterly demoralized by the overall system, and begin to develop a fundamental cynicism towards journalism, scientific processes, and political solutions to complex problems. When the political economy has rendered people apathetic, an apocalyptic fantasy can feel like a last gasp at meaning.

Why is this phenomenon (of wellness folks adopting QAnon beliefs) dangerous, and who is it harming?

[Georgia congresswoman] Marjorie Taylor Greene owned a CrossFit studio where she said her clients found community while doing self-work. Alan Hostetter is a San Clemente yoga teacher and singing bowls performer who has agitated at anti-mask rallies, given speeches at QAnon events, and was part of the mob that stormed the Capitol. So there are explicit wellness and QAnon crossover people who commit concrete political and social harm.

But the majority of soft-Q wellness folks provide intellectual, moral, and spiritual cover for the violent rhetoric of QAnon, and translate that rhetoric into more socially acceptable concerns, like anti-vax activism. Troublingly, they also amplify racist conspiracy theories that suggest that Black Lives Matter is paramilitary, or funded by George Soros—and domesticate these falsehoods into typical culture war nonsense.

When ["Plandemic" director] Mikki Willis goes to Washington on January 6th, his formal role is to speak at a "Medical Freedom" rally hosted by [alternative medicine activists] Ty and Charlene Bollinger. But he also joins the mob storming the building. He doesn't break windows or smear his feces on the walls, or break into the Senate chamber looking for Nancy Pelosi. But he does film the event sympathetically, and then goes on social media to talk about how peaceful and inspiring it was, and how the crowd was filled with Biden supporters. These lies, whether he believes them or not, give permission to his followers to interpret January 6th in spiritual, rather than criminal terms.

In my view, the concrete, material harm of QAnon in the wellness world may someday be measurable in terms of how much it moved the needle on vaccine hesitancy, and how much it complicated the public health response to COVID in terms of lockdown compliance.

Meanwhile, Dr. Simone Gold of the fraudulent group "America's Frontline Doctors," breaks into the Rotunda to give her disinformation speech about vaccine dangers. She's not breaking windows either, but when she stands there in her lab coat, she lends professional authority to the criminal acts carried out around her.

At the same time, out in Maine, Dr. Christiane Northrup posts to social media to praise her compatriots in Washington. This goes out to her 450,000 followers, who will also find on her page countless posts that conflate political actions with spiritual transformation.

In my view, the concrete, material harm of QAnon in the wellness world may someday be measurable in terms of how much it moved the needle on vaccine hesitancy, and how much it complicated the public health response to COVID in terms of lockdown compliance. It's a terrible irony: a demographic ostensibly committed to health, but equally committed to defying public health advice, and in that commitment, measurably worsening outcomes to a pandemic many say they don't even believe in. And it can’t be forgotten that we’re talking about a subculture that is predominantly white, harboring selfish attitudes about a disease that disproportionately impacts racialized people.

What does this phenomenon say about the wellness movement? What takeaways are there for those in the space who aren't happy with this alliance, or what lessons should we be learning about our own beliefs as wellness enthusiasts and/or spiritual seekers?

I think going forward, if you want to consume wellness content or products, you'll want to ask yourself whether that consumerism supports or degrades public health initiatives, in terms of social and financial capital. When you buy into wellness consumerism, do you take your attention away from the health services that actually keep you and others alive?

In practical terms—and really simple for as long as COVID is with us—I would look for information that a wellness worker provided on how they are supporting social distancing and other safety requirements. I’d look for their level of community involvement in things like supporting people experiencing homelessness, hunger, or gaps in medical care. Making social media posts supporting BLM isn’t enough. It’s too easy. And if they are making claims about their products and services that even come close to suggesting that they have therapeutic or preventative benefit in relation to COVID, you should run the other way, because not only are they deceiving the public, but they’re drawing social and emotional attention away from those who need it most, like frontline nurses.

If you are a content creator in the wellness space, I would say it's now on you to explicitly show that your content does not degrade public health initiatives or help erode the public trust in science. It's on you to show that you are not contributing to or profiting from an unreasonable distrust in conventional health care. If you can't do that, you are complicit in an individualistic and elitist economy that draws attention and money away from the difficult task of addressing the social determinants of health.

This interview was conducted via email.

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